Photo by Perry McIntyre/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
SALVADOR, Brazil — It has been four days since the U.S. Men’s National Team escaped the Group of Death and accomplished its goal of reaching the Round of 16, but you would be hard-pressed to realize that judging from the Americans’ current state.
Not long after making it the knockout phase of the World Cup last Thursday despite losing to Germany, U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his players decided to quickly push aside the joy they had from accomplishing that feat so as to focus on the next challenge. That would be Group H winners Belgium in Tuesday’s Round of 16 clash at Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, a team embedded with talented players who ply their trades at some of the biggest clubs in Europe but that has not been overly convincing during its first three games in Brazil.
The U.S. is still refusing to look past the Belgians, who had a scheduled scrimmage against the Americans in Brazil canceled over traffic concerns at the start of the tournament and were victorious in each of the two friendlies they played in during this World Cup cycle. Belgium claimed a 1-0 home win over the U.S. in September 2011 and a 4-2 victory in Cleveland in May 2013.
Klinsmann’s teams in both those matches do not closely resemble the extremely confident one that is currently hoping to extend its stay in Brazil by reaching the quarterfinals and avoiding elimination. Nonetheless, the U.S. head coach and his players are still not taking anything for granted and are completely locked in on their Belgian challenge.
“They are full of individual talent, there’s no doubt about it,” said Klinsmann. “(There’s) so much talent coming through the Belgium system, it’s admirable. We are aware of that. We had the opportunity to play them twice in the last three years, both times they came out as the winning team. But we also believe that we have enough confidence now going into this game – a very special one, a knockout game – to say we are able to beat them. But we all know we have to go to our extreme and get 100 percent in each player to make this happen.”
On top of entering the game with a high degree of confidence after advancing from the Group of Death, the U.S. will benefit from Belgium being bit by the injury bug. Defenders Thomas Vermaelen and Anthony Vanden Borre have been ruled out with injuries to join suspended midfielder Steven Defour as players who will watch from the stands, and captain and centerback Vincent Kompany is a game-time decision with a knock of his own.
The loss of those players hurts the Belgians’ chances, but the rest of head coach Marc Wilmots’ men are still talented enough to get the job done. From midfielders Marouane Fellaini and Eden Hazard to striker Romelu Lukaku to goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, Belgium has quality players on its roster and they are plenty capable of making a difference.
Perhaps no American knows that better than Tim Howard, who has played with several Belgians at the club level and is expecting a tough match from a side that many observers predicted would be a dark horse in the tournament.
“They’re just super talented,” said Howard. “You know, they get on the ball, they don’t really hold their position too much which creates problems – when a left winger comes inside (or) the right winger comes inside, it causes a little bit of chaos – and they’re so talented.
“We’ll have to have a good starting base defensively but I also think we can do a better job pressing the ball in situations, and recognizing what those triggers are because you can’t press the whole game but you also can’t sit in the whole game.”
That last point is something several Americans made reference to throughout the last few days. The U.S. struggled to keep possession against Germany in their Group G finale last Thursday and were undone by a second-half goal that seemed inevitable.
The Americans are well aware that they need to do a better job of keeping the ball for stretches if they wish to have a chance at knocking off Belgium. Not just because it will allow the U.S. to have the more chances to find holes in the Belgians’ injury-riddled back line, but also because it keeps the ball away from the talented opposition.
“I think they have one of the most complete teams in the World Cup as far as defending and attacking, but we have to worry about ourselves,” said left back DaMarcus Beasley. “We know that the Germany game was not our best as far as keeping the ball and making them make mistakes, so this is the type of game where we have to go out and leave everything on the field, push them and not sit back so much but actually go out and play them at full tilt.”
An improved performance from Michael Bradley would likely go a long away in helping the U.S. do better in the possession category. Bradley covered the most distance of any player through the group stages, but his overall contributions in the Americans’ first three games in Brazil did not live up to the standards that he places on himself.
Bradley will not have the luxury of just being able to worry about his offensive contributions, as he will need to once again help put in the dirty work by trying to limit the time and space that midfielders like Axel Witsel have. But his passing and decision-making need to be sharper, especially since he will probably once again be deployed in a more advanced position.
The potential return of Jozy Altidore is something that could help Bradley and the rest of the Americans. Altidore has been limited to just 23 minutes at this World Cup because of a left hamstring strain, but Klinsmann said his first-choice striker is ready and available for Tuesday despite not clarifying in what capacity.
If Altidore is deemed healthy enough to start, the U.S. would likely have to change the 4-2-3-1 formation that it used in games against Portugal and Germany. It would seem as if Klinsmann would return to the 4-3-2-1 that was deployed in the opener against Ghana, but that is no certain thing.
“Who’s to say what formation we do next game? That’s up to the boss,” said captain Clint Dempsey. “Whatever is best for the team, whatever allows us to get the right results and whatever formation we did in the group stage was correct because we were able to advance out of the group and get to the knockout stages. Whatever formation we play, I’m confident we’ll do well in.”
Klinsmann will also need to decide on who to start between Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez at the right centerback spot. Gonzalez started there in the 1-0 loss vs. Germany and turned in a strong 90-minute shift, but Cameron got the nod in the previous two games and could make his way back into the lineup to handle the crafty Lukaku.
The U.S. knows that Belgium will be no pushover and that another close, hard-fought encounter is likely in store. But that still is not keeping the hungry Americans from believing that they can build on their World Cup campaign.
“We know that we’re not satisfied with just getting to the Round of 16. We want to do more,” said Dempsey. “It’s a difficult challenge playing against Belgium that has a lot of quality players, but at the same time if we play to the best of our ability we can get the right result.”